MANILA, December 5, 2005 (STAR) By Ching M. Alano - We’re in chilly London and we’re riding a cab with an endearingly familiar Philippine scenery emblazoned on its body. Wow! It’s the WOW Philippines taxi that’s been plying the streets of London in the hope of driving home this message: Come and visit the Philippines.

The famed London cab with a Pinoy accent? Actually, a fleet of 50 such taxis were fielded by the Department of Tourism in time for the Philippines’ participation in this year’s World Trade Market held Nov. 14-17 at the 100-acre, ultramodern ExCel exhibit center at the Docklands, east London.

Known as probably the mother of all trade/travel fairs, this year’s World Trade Market drew more than 49,000 attendees and 5,000 exhibitors from more than a hundred countries, the largest yet in the 26-year history of WTM. The four-day travel mart was graced by more than a hundred government tourism ministers, ambassadors, and high commissioners.

Double wow!

Fiona Jeffrey, group exhibition director, is undoubtedly doubly ecstatic: "This has been a phenomenal year for World Travel Market and, despite the many traumas and problems that the industry has faced over this past year, reflects the nearly six percent predicted growth for 2005 and, encouragingly, a continued confidence next year."

(As the World Travel Market was going on at fever pitch, so were the riots in the streets of Paris.)

Those attending WTM year after year had something new to see, nay, experience at WTM 2005: a new dedicated Travel Technology area, for one. A personal event planner (take note!) to connect visitors to appropriate exhibitors, for another.

Jeffrey notes, "We had our most extensive event-related program ever with more than 70 stage events, seminars, and conferences taking place over the four days with the majority of them oversubscribed. All the topics were the burning issues of greatest importance to the industry and catered to every level of management and sector. This included, for example, technology, responsible tourism, hotels, aviation, gay and lesbian tourism, city and cultural tourism, youth tourism, and tourism for the disabled."

So, to this year’s World Travel Market a Philippine delegation, headed by Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano, went. The Philippine booth is hard to miss. It’s a two-storey Vigan house structure surrounded by palm trees. From a distance, it beckons with its hanging twinkling parols – yes, it’s Christmas in November in nippy London. The only thing lacking is the delectable aroma of puto bumbong cooking in bamboo tubes.

And then your eyes are riveted to the backlighted blow-up images of Boracay and the Banaue rice terraces, with photography by top lensman George Tapan. So lifelike, it draws you like a magnet and teases you to walk barefoot in the pristine white sand of Boracay. Ah, is this paradise or what?

"This booth occupies 101 square meters, but our space this year at WTM is doubly bigger because of the second floor," says Tourism Attache Domingo Ramon Enerio III. "Some of the materials used come from the Philippines like the capiz. We got this booth at quite a bargain, plus we can reuse some parts for future trade fairs."

Apparently, all the exhibitors did their darndest best to come up with the most eye-catching booth – and gimmicks/promos/freebies. Chicago was overflowing with visitors, what with its flowing chocolate fondue – we just couldn’t resist running a stick of marshmallows under the chocolate fountain! Trinidad/Tobago was treating everybody to rum punch and chocolate tasting. There was wine-tasting everywhere. Plus free candies, food and goodies galore and, yes, ballpens enough to last you a lifetime. We really didn’t need a fan (after all, it was freezing outside), but we just had to line up at Taiwan’s booth for a free fan, handpainted on the spot by a talented Taiwanese artist. And over at the London booth, George Clooney – actually, his wax figure – was there waiting for someone to propose to. He’s even got a diamond ring to slip on your finger if you say yes.

"I wouldn’t if I were you," a guy behind us says wryly. "He’s proposed to a least a 100 women today."

Talk about waxing romantic!

The Philippines, of course, didn’t sell itself short. This year, it got a therapist as one of its attractions. Atho dela Cruz of the Spa Association of the Philippines, with his magic gentle hands, certainly drew more than a handful of visitors to the Philippine booth. After a long hard day at the fair, Atho’s oh-so-soothing massage was a godsend. Indeed, the Philippine booth offered guests (and prospective clients?) something for both the body (native food was always aplenty) and the spirit.

And while everybody’s bringing out the booze, we’re sending out a whole fleet of WOW Philippines taxis to drum up interest in the Philippines.

"The taxi promotion in London is the country’s latest effort to create awareness among the Europeans, particularly in the UK, of the Philippine island paradise," says Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano, undoubtedly an ace salesman.

The WOW taxi campaign rides high. Records show that visitor arrivals from the UK increased by 11.3 percent from January to August of this year – that’s 41,460 tourists vis-a-vis 37,262 of the same period last year.

"To get an even higher market share from the UK, we have to make use of creative forms of advertising that will enable us to get maximum exposure despite our minimal resources," adds Durano. "Among the outdoor advertisement media (billboards, bus, underground Viacom, etc.) in London, we believe that taxi promotions are more effective."

Operating 24 hours every day in towns and city centers, the world-famous London cabs with the WOW Philippines sceneries are veritable running advertisements for the Philippines.

"We made use of a London icon (cab) to promote a Philippine icon; it’s a very good platform to showcase Filipino hospitality," notes Enerio. "It depicts a lot of sceneries from different parts of the country – from mountains to underwater to city life to culture to sports activities and festivals. The Filipino community in London is so strong when they see something like this, they feel very proud, very excited, and they want to help and be part of it. Even in the Philippines, when this campaign came out in the major papers and on TV, ang lakas ng impact."

To which Durano adds, "I was surprised that this is the one that got a lot of attention when in fact we’re also doing this in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea, where we’re using buses."

Durano fills us in on the colorful details: "It’s a six-month contract which goes on until March next year. (The taxi promo cost the Philippines £35,000 for 50 taxis for six months.) We want to extend it for another six months and increase the fleet from 50 to 100 at the end of March."

By the end of the six-month period, more than 1.5 million Londoners would have seen the WOW taxi.

"There have been a lot of inquiries not only from the public but also from the tour operators," says Enerio.

The Philippines did generate some ripples of interest following its participation in Dive Birmingham, the biggest dive show in the UK, which the Philippines attended after a 10-year absence. Says Durano, "We produced a new brochure and created the impression that the Philippines is a value-for-money destination. Medyo malayo, but the food is inexpensive, and so is the accommodation. And there’s much more variety in terms of activities, our kind of flora and fauna can’t be beat by any other destination in the world."

DOT is also looking at ways to get the private sector involved in the taxi campaign in terms of sponsorship. For instance, big companies like Ayala can put its name on the WOW cab. "KLM has already expressed interest to hook up with us," says Durano.

Looks like the WOW Philippines taxi promo is getting all the publicity mileage it can. Aren’t we overlooking something? What about our very own jeepneys? They look like they need a major image makeover.

"Oh, yes, we have a program next year to revive the jeepneys," says Durano. "This year, we focused on creating demand. We really needed to create an environment where investing in tourism would be profitable again. And we succeeded. So next year, we’ll now look at how we can improve the overall experience of the tourists in the country. And when you talk of experience, it’s really sight, sound, taste, etc. As a destination, I’ve always believed the Philippines is not a hard sell. It’s a matter of finding the right market and communicating effectively."

He hastens to add, "After this, we’re meeting with the tour operators to get their feedback. I was telling them, ‘Kayo talaga ang bida dito.’ You guys are the ones selling. We just provide the venue for you. This is our investment. Aside from actual bookings, there are media – travel writers – from this market that visit us. There are two things we invested heavily in this year: travel fairs and familiarization tours. We bring in media and tour operators from the different markets to the Philippines because it’s really the most effective way to counter their perception of the country – to let them see it for themselves."

At the end of the day, it’s the numbers that tell the real story. Let some of this year’s Philippine delegates tell their story.

Pedro Young Jr., director of Tourism Services, Marsman Drysdale Travel and Tours: "It’s not so much the quantity as the quality of prospective visitors. I got inquiries from some Indians belonging to the upper crust of society. A lot of tourists are now looking for an alternative destination (other than our traditional competitors like Thailand, India, and Indonesia); they’re tired of going to the same destinations. We’re attracting Europe like Czechoslovakia. A top company in Germany was interested in coming to the Philippines and putting the country on its program."

Renato Contis, general manager, Bayan Ko Tours and Travel: "I had a very surreal experience. There was this lady named Saldina Bayan who came to the booth, she’s a travel agent from Kazakhstan. And then there was Magdalena from Czechoslovakia who deals with incentive groups. She’s into specific programs like team building, treasure hunting. This group is looking for a culinary experience. They want to go to a village in the Philippines where they could cook Czech food for Filipinos and the Filipinos will cook native food for them. I was thinking of Angono, Rizal, which has a flourishing art scene. Aside from art to feed the soul, they’ve got good food to feed the stomach. Before this lady left the booth, I gave her a small bottle of our virgin coconut oil. She was wondering what it was, so I told her, ‘What were you many years ago?’"

Sonia Teresita Lazo, managing partner, Intas Destination Management, "There’s a renewed interest in the Philippines as an alternative destination from the European market – Germany, Italy, Holland, and some parts of Scandinavia (Denmark and Sweden), as well as Russia, where people are looking for beaches and want sun, sand, and sea because it’s cold in their country all year round. We expect a lot of European guests. Even Eastern Europe is taking notice of us."

Of course, Ace Durano is happy that our delegates to the WTM came home with a bagful of business cards from prospective clients. He’s even more happy to announce, "We’ll be hosting the Asean Tourism Forum in Davao next year. In 1998, we hosted ATF in Cebu and that relly propelled Cebu as the international destination that it is known today. We want to use next year’s ATF to propel Davao as the newest international destination because it’s beautiful and it’s got an international airport (SilkAir flies direct to Davao), and all the tourist infrastructure."

Wow! That hot news is enough to warm us all as we shrink from London’s near-freezing weather.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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